The president who seemed almost too cool to rule in his first debate came out occasionally seething for the final round Monday night. The challenger who lunged and tore at the commander-in-chief just 19 days ago now frequently demurred and almost begged for an end to the fight, at least this kind of fight.
Most instant polls showed Obama winning and analysts said he won “on points,” whatever that means. But there was a somewhat desperate and flailing quality about some of his hits on Romney, especially when he condescended about a big American Navy having gone the way of bayonets and cavalry horses.
The newly found aggressiveness pleased the president’s loyal supporters. The endlessly shape-shifting challenger, in their eyes, deserved ample heapings of disdain. One could almost imagine strategist-in-chief David Axelrod holding a picture of Romney in front of Obama after the first debate failure and saying, “Hey, Mr. President, this guy wants your job.”
How the small and rare set of undecided voters would view the new, tough Obama can only be imagined. Surveys have suggested that less ideological swing voters don’t like confrontation and sharp partisanship. Insta-analysis – which the Obama campaign quickly set to video suggested, however, that at least some middle-roaders enjoyed seeing the president in fighting form.
How many undecideds paid attention we can't know. It’s a safe bet that many tuned their televisions to playoff baseball, "Monday Night Football," or set about their kids’ homework or some other task.
Romney’s Round Three mood swing also appeared consultant-driven: Don’t say anything rash or impulsive. Don’t get mad. In short, don’t remind the audience, even a little, of the last Republican in the White House — George W. Bush. A majority of voters may have liked Bush, the man, but they came to loath the two wars that he insisted could be won with just a little more American force.
So the former Massachusetts governor spent the duration of the debate being Un-Bush. He kept his face locked in that smile—the one that seems equal measures condescension, exhaustion and sadness. More than once, Romney tried to rebuff Obama with a mercy plea. “Attacking me,” he said, “is not an agenda.”
It wasn’t a brilliant or inspirational 90 minutes from either man. Maybe it's better that we'll end this long, long campaign with several more stirring rounds of campaign ads.
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